An article by David Revelles (who has visited with us in Streedagh several times over the past five years) was recently published in El País, a Spanish newspaper with a world wide readership: El último disparo de ‘La Juliana’.
An English translation courtesy of Jo Holmwood follows.
The last shot of ‘La Juliana’
The discovery of nine cannons from the wrecked ship of the Spanish Armada serves to forge an agreement between the Spanish and Irish Governments to preserve their shared heritage.
The bowels of the National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks, on the banks of Dublin’s River Liffey, harbour a treasure that can open a new path in the preservation of underwater heritage of Spain: nine bronze cannons, a representation of the 32 that were aboard the merchant ship La Juliana, of the Spanish Armada at the time of her wreckage, on 21 September 1588. Recovered last summer on the beach of Streedagh, north of the city of Sligo, along with other artefacts from the ship, it will be two years before anyone can contemplate them there, wherever they may finally be exhibited. “During that time they will be my guests, to whom I will dedicate all my attention and facilities” jokes Rolly Read, head of the Conservation Department at the museum, while moving through the dark, labyrinthine corridors that lead to the room where the cannons rest.
It is the same route taken a few weeks ago by a group comprising some of the chiefs of Spanish underwater archaeology, with Ivan Negueruela, director of the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (ARQUA), at its head, and representatives of the Ministry of Culture. Their objective? It’s twofold: to meet these huge cannons in person and, above all, to seal an agreement with the Irish government and the team of archaeologists who oversaw their discovery, to collaborate in ensuring the recovery of rest of the cannons, which are still reposing in the waters at Streedagh.
“The agreement between the Ministries of Culture of Ireland and Spain is consolidated by a permanent collaboration in everything that has to do with the Great Armada” explains Negueruela, who makes no effort to hide his delight in a collaboration that could signify a decisive turnaround in the preservation of Spanish underwater heritage on the island. “Of course, this common effort will be two-way, in so much as we will supply our colleagues with documentary material from our historical archives so they can frame their findings, while they can count on us to participate on the ground in future underwater campaigns,” says this expert.
The laboratory, full of strange devices, pipes and tools, looks like something out of an American forensic series. A damp marine-like vapour pervades the atmosphere. Inside, archaeologists Fionnbarr Moore and Karl Brady, members of the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) which is charged with the work on the wreck, look over a pair of artillery pieces submerged in a huge tank of water, with a fatherly expression. “After four centuries on the sea bed, they have earned a deserved and exhaustive conservation process that will strip them of the crust of erosion and oblivion,” says Read. The cannons will enjoy two years of rest, in some way, a vacant time. So Irish experts who are studying them have begun to check and have discovered pages of the Great Armada of Felipe II, silenced for centuries by a shroud of oblivion and ocean.
For starters, if the forger who gave life to the cannons in 1570 – the founding date, engraved in Roman numerals on the breech – could hear the Irish expert, he would give him a brotherly hug for looking after his creatures with such care. “We can now confirm that most of the recovered guns came from Genoa, from the workshop of Doria II Gioardi, one of the masters of the XVI century, as evidenced by the letter D surrounding the combustion chamber,” says Brady.
With exquisite care, Fionnbarr Moore, the director of the archaeological campaign, opens the black plastic which, like a shroud protects the four gigantic packages which, lined up like a battalion of soldiers killed in battle, occupy most of the laboratory. The archaeologist’s grey eyes sparkle when he reveals one of the surprises that is repeated on most of the guns rescued from La Juliana: engravings of different saints, designed to guarantee the shot when spitting fire, bullets and shrapnel, decorate the breech of each piece. Santa Ilaria, San Severo, San Giovani, Santa Madrona … “Do not forget that against the English protestant boats, as with the Turks, these ships were waging an ideological, religious war, which is epitomised in these holy saints”, explains Moore, while running a finger over the figure of San Sebastian, resplendent against the reptile skin of the cannon.
True, its coppery colour is not as suggestive as the gold cannon reposing in the cellars of the galleon San Jose, which was discovered in Colombia in the summer of 2015. However, despite the centuries, its silence continues whispering stories. “Although the guns are spectacular, I see them for what they are, tools of destruction, weapons created to kill men Brady confesses, hence what fascinates me most about working on a boat like is getting closer to its biography, its past and everything that it lived through before being wrecked.”
On that score, La Juliana did more than her fair share. And before capsizing, although originally created to transport grain or wine in her hold, she ended up living dangerously. For example, in 1571, she fought as a support ship in Lepanto. “It is likely that her participation in that battle took place with this special booty,” theorizes Moore while fixing his stare on the bottom of one of the tanks: a Turkish cannon, whose combustion chamber is finished off with Arabic lettering, shares its space and its destiny with a piece that is engraved with the image of San Roque.
Archaeologists are convinced that they will be new surprises, both from this boat and the others that are resting on the beach Streedagh and which ran the same fate. Of that Read gives one confidence, as he moistens the olive skin of a cannon with spray. Some menacing flames carved on the cannon’s shaft glisten under the patina. “The Spanish Armada always has an ace up its sleeve,” he says. And if not just ask the English specialist who is charged with restoring one of the stone cannons of La Juliana, now exhibited in the museum, which was discovered in the 80s. “On elevating the tank – he recalls, laughingly – after having been immersed in hot water to remove impurities, a cannon ball that was blocked in the barrel of the cannon fell dramatically, and smashed it to bits.” “That was the last shot, the last surprise of La Juliana,” he declares with British irony.
David Revelles has made two documentaries on the Armada in Ireland and is an enthusiastic supporter of GADA projects.